“Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”
One hour and fifteen minutes into Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia the sun rises for the first time as a dead body is unearthed from the hard soil of a Turkish countryside. A group of men struggle to lift the heavy corpse from a hole in the ground. A laptop is procured and set on a small wooden stool, and a policeman begins dictating a field autopsy.
Before this moment, seventy-five minutes in, the film’s plot was murky at best, with more oblique hints at the story than any hard data. Although these carefully executed nudges at narrative substance are done with a sort of beautiful rolling hills painterly quality, the grandeur isn’t quite enough to overwhelm the film’s obtuse character study and difficult pace.
The film follows a law enforcing posse and two criminals as they search the countryside for what is presumably a dead body. This sounds like a promising start, but the film reveals its conflict much too slowly, and the conflict is actually only a backdrop to the meat of the film, which is the downtime between searches. The downtime serves as a platform for plenty of sandbox philosophizing and revealing conversations between characters. It’s intriguing at first, but quickly becomes tiresome.
To its credit, the first half of the film is shot stunningly. It plays like an Edward Hopper painting with endless gorgeous views of the Turkish countryside at night, illuminated only by yellow headlights and the soft glow of the moon. The visual component of the film is clearly meticulously crafted, and often beautiful, but it’s just not enough to carry the film for two and a half hours.
I don’t mean to bemoan the concept of a character study, but Ceylan just gives far too little to warrant any sort of study of these characters, and plays a little too fast and loose with conventional narrative. After getting you into the theater with such a loaded title (I hoped for a “once upon a time” type fairy tale), Ceylan leaves you to investigate the psychologies of his dull characters. Comparisons have been made between Anatolia and the works of Dostoevsky and Robert Bresson, but neither of those men ever swam in such shallow waters.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is screening at the UWM Union Theatre on Friday, March 30 at 7 p.m., Saturday, March 31 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 1 at 5 p.m. For more information on the UWM Union Theatre, click here.